One of the most common complaints about politics, regardless of country, is that it’s boring. Grey men and women in grey suits and dresses, speaking in a language which feels wholly unfamiliar to the language that we speak and entirely indecipherable. Are they even human? The levels of ambition and sociopathy required for any kind of career in politics would suggest the extent of their humanity is a little different to that of most of us, but the great joy and strength of political journalist Marie le Conte’s Haven’t You Heard? is how it blows up this hypothesis. When understood as a cast of characters jostling for power and favour, politics springs to life in glorious technicolour. Yes, politicians are human, believe it or not, and that this has seismic implications for our politics.
“…gossip is messy. It is messy because politics is messy, and politics is messy because it is made up of people, and anything with people in it is a mess. Accepting this is a good start-off point.” This declaration in the opening pages of Haven’t You Heard? charges through the remainder of the book, written in le Conte’s delightfully witty and accessible prose. But the book is, substantively, much more than just a collection of gossipy anecdotes (though there are plenty) or a study of gossip itself (though plenty of academic work is cited). It is also a book about the complicated relationship between politicians and journalists, a debate on the ethics and best practices when it comes to handling certain allegations, the distinction between gossip and news and, interestingly, a how-to guide for navigating parliament.
“…people who work in SW1 are just that: people. People do stupid things, they get drunk, they’re selfish, make mistakes, love each other, hate each other, and let all of the above influence their work in ways it shouldn’t. Of course, said work in this case just so happens to dictate what happens to the country at large, which only goes to add another layer of mess to the situation.”
Perhaps this is a misreading, but the British electorate seems to have an aggressive distaste for the idea of personality-driven politics, despite enjoying and participating in practice. A frequent complaint from people is that one shouldn’t vote based on whether they like the politician or not but rather on the basis of the policies they espouse. A friend of mine thinks all politicians should avoid showing their faces and instead have boxes on their heads (a semi-serious suggestion). Deciding your political affiliations as per their character is superficial, a symptom of our surface-based modern world. The problem with this take is that British politics has always been personality-driven and presidential (stretching back to the 19th Century, as written about in my friend Penny’s article for Tortoise) and, even putting that aside, it’s fundamentally impossible to extract character from politics. If you’re still thinking this is otherwise, you need to read Haven’t You Heard?
Even beyond voting, le Conte details the extent to which personality and gossip define politics. Civil servants working in a government department, for example, rely partially on gossip in order to parse whether their minister is in the good books of Downing Street or facing the chop in a cabinet reshuffle. If it’s the former, then they can expend time and energy working on the minister’s pet projects. If it’s the latter, however, why bother when there are more pressing issues at hand? In this context, gossip grows beyond trivial chat and into the rulebook of efficient governance.
Or, take a look at the role of party whips. I often find that non-political friends and family strongly dislike the idea of party whips, thinking it’s not right that some individuals are allowed to hold so much personal information and use it to bribe and blackmail MPs into towing the party line. But it’s hard to see how else party discipline can be enforced unless you take it as fact that MPs will, by virtue of being politicians and members of said party, follow the party line. As le Conte establishes in those opening pages, politics is made up of people, and people are more complicated than that. Having some free thinkers in the Commons is always welcome but inefficient discipline leads to disunity and inefficiency which looks bad to voters and is even worse if you’re in government trying to get stuff done.
“Thousands of words are written about politics every day, but most of them only ever scratch the surface of why things really happen, and how they really work. This can be alienating and perhaps a reason why so many see politics as dry and dull, when it is often anything but.
…much of what has happened in Westminster in the past few years came from friendships, feuds and clashes of personalities. Take them out of the equation and you will find yourself baffled.”
Haven’t You Heard? is chock full of analysis and points such as these, and it’s written in such an accessible way (with regular jargon explainers) that it can be read by pretty much anybody. In that sense, it’s the perfect book for somebody who wants to learn a bit more about “how politics really works,” whether they plan to go into the political sphere or just want to learn a bit more about what they see on the telly. Regardless, it’ll give you a fundamentally different perspective on politics than is typically offered up. It demonstrates how the vast majority of MPs really do want to change things for the better, even if their ideas of how to get there, and what constitutes as ‘better,’ differ remarkably. And, as the above quotes elaborate, it’ll exemplify just how important understanding the characters of those involves is to understanding political events (this isn’t from the book, but a good example is the current Labour leadership race: many seem to want Angela Rayner to run for leader rather than deputy leader, and Rebecca Long-Bailey not to run for leader – but the two MPs are best friends and flatmates, so any decision is going to add a deeply personal dimension).
Importantly, Haven’t You Heard? doesn’t take any kind of moral view on how personalities drive politics, because that’s simply the way things are. Until the day when politics is outsourced to robots whose sole function will be to achieve policy objectives, who were friends from school, who’s sleeping with who, who have good chemistry, and who are the most friendly and charismatic will continue to matter greatly when it comes to affairs of state.
Charming, fun and breezy, and with a brand new government with lots on its agenda firmly in place until 2024, Marie le Conte’s Haven’t You Heard? Gossip, Power and How Politics Really Works is the perfect book to learn more about Westminster and the machinations of political power in the UK (and, if you want to learn even more, have a listen to my interview with her from September).